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Lehman, Herbert Henry


LEHMAN, HERBERT HENRY (1878–1963), U.S. banker, politician, and statesman. Herbert Lehman attended Williams College and on his graduation in 1899 joined his father's firm (see *Lehman), of which he became a full partner in 1908. His initiation into public service came during World War i, when he was commissioned as a captain in the War Department Ordnance bureau and rose to become a member of the War Claims Board with the rank of full colonel. Disappointed in his ambition to become assistant secretary of war in the Wilson administration, he resigned from the service in 1919 to return to his position with Lehman Brothers. In the course of several visits to Europe after the war, he was deeply moved by the devastation wrought to Jewish communities everywhere and subsequently helped found the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He was also called upon during these years as an occasional mediator between labor and management in the garment industry, where he was an enthusiastic backer of unionization.

Lehman returned to public life in 1924 to participate in the successful New York State gubernatorial campaign of his friend Alfred E. Smith. In 1926 he headed a citizen's committee for Smith's reelection and in 1928 he was active in Smith's successful campaign to gain the Democratic presidential nomination, for which he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the national finance committee of the Democratic Party. In October 1928 he was nominated to run for lieutenant governor of New York State on the ticket of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected governor by a narrow vote.

As Roosevelt's right hand, Lehman proved to be an able politician and administrator. He was especially active in assisting Roosevelt with financial and budgetary problems, in improving the scope and caliber of the state's administration agencies and social services, particularly in the area of hospital and prison reform, and in dealing skillfully with a wide range of emergencies and labor crises.

When Roosevelt went on to become president in 1932, Lehman was elected governor by an unprecedented plurality of close to a million votes over his Republican opponent. During his first term as governor, he struggled largely with financial and labor problems brought on by the Depression. Reelected for four more terms (1934, 1936, 1938, 1940), his administrations were marked by a systematic application of the New Deal in legislation for New York State. He strove to bring utilities under public control, sought to reapportion the state's legislative and congressional membership, and fought for a wide range of minimum wage, social security, and general welfare bills. Many of the measures he sponsored helped make New York one of the most socially progressive states in the Union.

Lehman resigned the governorship in 1942 to become head of the newly formed United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, whose vast task was to minister to the war-torn civilian populations of the Axis-occupied areas reconquered by the Allies. While he worked with tremendous energy and devotion, the experience proved in many ways frustrating; the program was hampered by personality clashes, conflicts of national interest, and the emerging tensions of the cold war. He resigned from his position in March 1946 and turned his attention to the specific plight of Jewish refugees and to the situation in Palestine. Although then not a Zionist and opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, Lehman was sympathetic to the cause of free Jewish immigration into Palestine and argued for it publicly and in his private political contacts.

Lehman's first postwar attempt to return to politics, a bid for a New York State senatorial seat in 1946, failed when he was defeated by Irving Ives in the Republican landslide. In a special election in 1949, however, he was elected to the Senate against John Foster Dulles, and he was reelected in the regular election the following year. During his term in the Senate he was a leader of the small liberal minority that uncompromisingly fought against McCarthyism and its tactics. He also headed the opposition to the discriminatory Walter-McCarran immigration bill, against which he cosponsored the unsuccessful Lehman-Tobey bill. He was an internationalist in foreign policy and a staunch supporter of the State of Israel.

Lehman declined to run for reelection in 1956. He remained an influential figure in New York State politics, however, and participated, with Eleanor Roosevelt, in Mayor Robert Wagner's successful "reform crusade" against the Democratic Party organization of New York City in 1961.


A. Nevins, Herbert H. Lehman and his Era (1963); J. Bellush, Selected Case Studies of the Legislative Leadership of Governor Herbert H. Lehman (1959); idem, in: New York History, 41 (1960), 423–43; 45 (1964), 119–34; 43 (1962), 79–104; B. Bellush, Franklin D. Roosevelt as Governor of New York (1955); S. Birmingham, Our Crowd (1967); Finkelstein, in: ajyb, 66 (1965), 3–20; Glaser, in: Commentary, 35 (1963), 403–9.

[Hillel Halkin]

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